Rat snake

Jul 14, 2019

Elaphe obsoleta is a common snake I find by the house, in the barns, even in drawers and which will feed on mice, toads and even in nests they will reach thanks to their extraordinary climbing capabilities.

Rat snakes show a  high regional variation in body pattern and color. Our area in Hudsonville is an overlap of the gray rat snake with the black-and-gray rat snake. However further North -East, in Tennessee, one can find the black rat snake and I would believe it is here as well, as one can see on the pictures below, from Black to Black-and-Gray to Gray.

The Rat snake is also called chicken snake or simply black snake, this specially when the snake is slender and looks like a racer. It is said that the size reflects their recent diet, and they can be pretty stout. They are found most of the year, hibernating when temperatures are really cold in rotten logs, hollow trees or in the barn or in the workshop under a pile of boards. In spring one can find them on the ground or in the trees, I have never seen them in the swamps, even if they are reported to hunt there. They are most active in day time, especially when they climb trees and bushes in Spring, they will be active all night long in the summer months. They are hunter constrictors using smell and vision to find their prey: small mammals, birds and eggs, which they will swallow whole and break in their throat by squeezing the shell against the vertebrae.

Rat snakes lay eggs after the mating months of April, May and June. The clutch size is on average 15 eggs that hatch in two months. The eggs are laid in stump holes, tree holes or other moist and dark cavities. Rat snakes are known for returning to the same area to nest, year after year. Newborn rat snakes look like miniature versions of the gray adult with dark botches on a lighter gray body. They will assume their regional coloration when they grow older.

Copperheads, King snakes, Racers, hawks, owls, raccoons, coyotes prey on rat snakes. When they are encountered on the ground they exhibit this behavior called ‘kinking’, in which the stretched out snake makes a series of kinks along the length of its body while remaining motionless. Presumably this would be a form of camouflage. see picture below.

They may also bite and will coil in a spring in order to strike, but this is not their first reaction, they will remain quiet and rather mellow in most encounters.

When the leaves have fallen in Autumn we will find the skin remaining from a late molt in the trees or shrubs.

The taxonomy has been under review and some place the rat snake under genus Pantherophis rather than Elaphe. Furthermore the eastern rat snake, the Texas rat snake and the gray rat snake would be three distinct species with no recognized subspecies.